A Leadership Lesson in Hurricane Season
One of the tradeoffs of living in the warmth and beauty of South Florida is dealing with the potential of hurricanes. As I begin to write this, the remnants of Ian are racing toward the North Atlantic after barreling through my adopted state and then sideswiping South Carolina. If there’s an unseen benefit found amid hurricane season, it has something to do with preparation. Leveraging their experience with big storms, the residents, agencies, businesses, and municipalities of hurricane country begin their preparation long before the first named storm of the season starts to churn out at sea.
Benjamin Franklin famously quipped, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” Franklin, an expert in preparation, never stepped into a negotiation room or assembly hall without being completely versed in the issues of the day. Franklin knew he could always be outnumbered by the opposition but never out prepared by them. Indeed, preparation is necessary for every leader. Even the most seasoned leaders among us recognize that preparation is far more important than raw talent.
Issues and Audiences
Leaders in the hurricane division of FEMA must have a working knowledge of hurricane meteorology, supply chain logistics, and organizational communication. Do they need to be experts in all these domains of disaster prep and response? Of course not. That said, they need to be able to move among a host of experts to manage FEMA’s broad operation.
It’s been said that confidence is birthed by knowledge. In the business environment, a leader’s knowledge builds confidence across the organization. Said differently, if you are leading a group of people tasked with producing a specific work product, then you must have a thorough understanding of what a successful deliverable should look like. Nothing will demoralize a team faster than leadership from someone who is clearly incompetent. Do your homework as a leader, ensuring that you are well-versed in the processes and outputs that are normative in your setting. If you discover there’s something you don’t know, then dig deep and expand your knowledge base and/or find others who do.
Leaders also prepare for an assortment of interactions with various audiences. Franklin, for example, honed his French before moving to Paris to serve as US Ambassador to France. FEMA’s “out front” leaders realize that the PR aspects of their jobs require the nimbleness to make reports to agency heads, and then turn on a dime to interact with the public. A prepared leader gets to know her audience through research, listening, and asking great questions. The leader also “speaks the language” of the audience.
One of the best ways a leader can prepare for a host of challenges and opportunities, is by possessing some insight into their limitations. I, for one, know nothing about the structure and movement of hurricanes. I do, however, know that bad storms can create significant problems for the members of my team and the good functioning of the company I work for. Inasmuch, I can prepare for the eventually of storms by surrounding myself with experts, listening to their reports, and then creating actionable contingency plans based on the professional advice I’ve received.
One of the maxims of hurricane country goes something like “prepare while you can.” From emergency supply stockpiles to escape routes, all in the path of storms recognize that the best time to act is before the winds and waves arrive. So it is with leadership. The prep we undertake before the market changes, the economy sours, or the next pandemic arrives will always lead to a better outcome than doing nothing at all. Understand the issues. Get to know your audiences. Name your limitations and put workarounds in place to compensate. Do it NOW.